Social enterprise can be challenging to define, in large part because the concept has been evolving rapidly in recent years and increasingly blurs the lines of the traditional business, government and non-profit sectors.
Social Enterprise Alliance suggests the following basic working definition:
Organizations that address a basic unmet need or solve a social problem through a market-driven approach.
Social enterprise is not a silver bullet, but it is a promising approach to fulfilling unmet needs and fostering genuinely “triple-bottom-line” organizations – those simultaneously seeking profits, social impact, and environmental sustainability.
It’s certainly not the only solution, but it is most definitely a solution.
For traditional non-profits, social enterprise can be a powerful complement to other activities when it advances the social mission and the financial sustainability of the organization.
For new start-ups – non-profits and for-profits – social enterprise gives entrepreneurs the ability to bake social impact and financial sustainability into the organization’s DNA from its outset.
For traditional businesses, social enterprise initiatives enable a company to integrate social impact into business operations and prioritize social goals alongside financial returns.
To learn more about for-profit social enterprise, check out our article on B corps and public benefit corporations.